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Northern exposure

The Russian Arctic is home to reindeer herders, the descendants of gulag inmates and energy-company employees earning top dollar on hardship postings. Welcome to the 'Zone of Absolute Discomfort'. Words and pictures by Justin Jin

 

Inside the claustrophobic confines of a shipping container erected in the middle of an icy nowhere, a group of Russians wait out another Arctic storm. Anton bakes blinis. Andrei watches a horror movie for the umpteenth time. Alexei tries to craft a toothpaste holder from an empty tin can. Lisa the dog, who finds company among the 100 men in Camp No2, curls up farthest away from the drafty door.

The engineers gathered on this desolate patch of Russian tundra have been hired by a geo-exploration company to look for oil deep below the permafrost. I am waiting out the battering winds with them, to document the international race to secure Arctic resources.

I have made six trips over three years to the Russian Arctic, a 7,000-kilometre-long region stretching atop the planet from Finland to Alaska, upon which Moscow bureaucrats have bestowed the name "Zone of Absolute Discomfort". The icy hinterland is wretched to live in, but just hospitable enough to allow for the extraction of billions of tonnes of resources trapped beneath the permafrost.

Here, three contrasting ways of life, representing three centuries of Russian history, simultaneously tap the Earth's resources amid its harshest conditions: indigenous reindeer herders known as Nenets; descendants of former Soviet prisoners; and energy-company men seeking oil and natural gas.

For hundreds of years, the Russian Arctic was home only to the Nenets. When the Soviet government tried to force these nomads into collective farms, some were settled in apartment blocks, abruptly altering their way of life. Other Nenets defied Soviet edicts and remained on the tundra, raising reindeer for meat and benefiting from an increase in demand for antlers, which are sold as aphrodisiacs in China. These hardy nomads live in chums (tents) and serve bowls of frozen reindeer brain to guests as a delicacy.

In the far north's urban areas, mounted jet aircraft stand sentry over cities used and abused by the Soviet government, and descendants of Joseph Stalin's prisons populate the streets. The gulags were abandoned in the 1950s, after Stalin's death, but many former inmates chose to stay in the area. The Soviet government built housing blocks and communities for those who worked in the mines, and offered high salaries to attract newcomers. The area boomed, for a while, but the regime scarred the pristine land with no regard for nature or sustainability. Now, pollutants shock the landscape and its inhabitants; in one town, Nikel, sulphur rain kills all vegetation within kilometres of the mine.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian republic neglected to support the towns and cities of the Arctic Circle, leaving people to languish in extreme conditions. The new government lost interest in the region and disregarded its infrastructure. Mines and factories closed, leaving an entire generation in the Arctic region with little but poverty and alcoholism. Many have fled, to seek a future; those who stay often don't work, age rapidly and die young.

Now, the Russian government is once again looking to the far north. In the past decade, scientists have discovered billions of gallons of oil and gas trapped underneath the tundra. New workers' outposts, more nimble and modern, rise adjacent to the shells of old Soviet drill sites. Engineers and miners from around the world work short stints in the region, looking for natural wealth deposits three kilometres below the tundra. They come with expensive, sophisticated equipment and earn substantial amounts for their hardship postings.

The Nenets face a renewed assault on their way of life: pipelines block migration routes while asphalt highways and gated drilling towers confound the search for fresh pastures.

It is the Nenets who must yield, as the Russian government has invested billions in energy exploration and, in 2007, asserted its dominance over the whole region by planting a titanium flag into the Arctic seabed. Ice-breaking ships circle the northernmost oil terminal in the world, near the North Pole, where global warming has opened a sea route in summer months. Within two decades, the government and mining companies hope, further warming will create a year-round ice-free route for container ships travelling between Asia and Europe.

The North Pole region is an area rich in resources prized by countries with an Arctic reach, such as the United States and Canada, and nations such as China that thirst for oil. But behind the geopolitics are the individuals who eke out a life in this unforgiving desert.

Back in the shipping container, Andrei and Alexei grow restless, and talk about their next opportunity to "strike gold" out on the ice. When the wind stills, the two grab towels and bolt for the makeshift sauna a few containers down the road. It is powered by pure Arctic diesel.

 


 

Justin Jin was born in 1974, in Hong Kong. He attended La Salle Primary School and the first year of La Salle College, in Kowloon, before leaving for Marlborough College, in Britain, aged 13. He graduated from Cambridge University and joined Reuters, where he worked as a correspondent in Beijing and managed a financial news bureau in Shenzhen. On leaving Reuters, he picked up a camera to pursue an independent documentary photography career. He is the recipient of a Magnum Foundation grant, a Canon Prize and a World Press Photo Masterclass scholarship, among other prizes, and now lives in Brussels, Belgium, with his wife and three children. Jin still has family living in Braemar Hill, North Point, and has "always considered Hong Kong my home".

"The Zone of Absolute Discomfort" was unveiled in September last year at Visa Pour L'Image, the world's premier photojournalism festival, in Perpignan, France. It won an Award of Excellence at the 2013 Pictures of the Year International awards. More of his work can be seen at www.justinjin.com

 

 

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wdubay1
If the "Nenets must yield," it will be Russia and the rest of the world who will be the worse for the loss. Like the Eskimos of Alaska and Canada, the Nenets not only possess a unique culture and language, but they are the chief human repository of human knowledge about the arctic. They know most, not only about survival in the arctic, but about the arctic environment and its habitat. I worked with the Inupiat of the North Slope Borough in Alaska for 10 years as the editor of The Arctic Policy Review. I can tell you that scientists and other students of the arctic were always amazed by the depth of knowledge and insight of local people. It is a priceless asset we cannot afford to lose.

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